Amid the death and destruction delivered throughout Montecito by the 1/9 Debris Flow, the fine-wine world suffered its own silent yet momentous loss when the mudslide consumed the cellar at San Ysidro Ranch.
Packed with 12,500 bottles made by vintners near and far — with multiple vintages going back to the 1960s, not to mention a 1907 bottle of Madeira and an $8,100 magnum of 1982 Dom Perignon — the dark basement beneath the Stonehouse Restaurant contained more than $3 million worth of wine. But once the mud surged in, electrical power ceased, temperatures warmed, and the buried wines were ruined, chalked up to insurers as a total loss.
Todd Smith, the property’s wine director, learned that news a few days after the slide. “I didn’t have high hopes for the cellar,” he recalled, though his post-mudslide mind was understandably elsewhere until the property manager called to confirm his suspicions. “That was a huge disappointment,” said Smith, who later watched crude videos of the insurance agents smashing the tops off of coveted bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), vintage Champagne, and old Rioja, dumping them out, and tossing them into a pit. “But I knew with time we could rebuild.”
Smith started that quest in early 2018, beginning a global search for vintners, distributors, and even private collectors who could rebuild in one year what initially took a decade to develop. His goal was to retain Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, which honors just 100 restaurants around the world that serve the deepest, most diverse wine lists. San Ysidro Ranch’s Stonehouse first won the designation in 2014, largely due to the work of then-wine director Michael Trupiano. Smith was hired that same year, with the obvious charge of maintaining that status.
The first step was redesigning the cellar itself, which Smith did with the ranch’s director of restaurants, Franco de Bartolo. (While celebrated, the former cellar wasn’t much to look at, mostly a storage room stacked with plywood bins.) Smith and Bartolo went back and forth with the designers until they found a layout that reflected the ranch.
“We made it a show cellar, but nothing flashy — it just fits the whole vibe of the ranch,” said Smith, who was able to install dark walnut shelving, LED lighting, and a humidity-controlled cooling system. “We got to do all of the bells and whistles that you’d never be able to do without a disaster like this happening.”
Next was restocking the cellar with wines from both California and the Old World’s most exalted vinelands. Building up the former was a relatively smooth process. Napa Valley’s Diamond Creek and Spottswoode stepped up with wines, and the Pisonis sent vintages from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Closer to home, Foxen Winery delivered wines going back to the 1990s, and Melville shared some of their library wines.
Smith thought the Old World hunt would be more challenging. But thanks to the ranch’s long-standing relationship with so many wineries and distributors, bottles and even verticals — the same wine from multiple vintages in a row — became available from around the world. Smith also traveled to Europe to meet with winemakers and procure special deals.
“It’s really nice to get some DRC back on the list,” said Smith of one success story. He’s also tracked down a collection of Domaine Leroy, which was pricey but worth it. “I look at those as an investment in Madame Lalou [Bize-Leroy],” said Smith of the vigneron. “Those wines are going to skyrocket when she is no longer in charge.”
He’d like to land some Henri Jayer as well, which he calls “the ultimate unicorn” wine. But he is really focused on finding great wines that people will enjoy, not just admire. “I don’t want to open a wine museum,” said Smith. “I’d like to be able to have everything resold.”
Moved by the saga — and impressed with the new cellar and growing list — Wine Spectator bestowed The Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch with a Grand Award in its July issue. “A remarkable effort,” wrote the magazine, “the new cellar is a small step in restoring normality to the local community.”
Though the resort lost almost half of its rooms to the mudslide, San Ysidro Ranch is almost fully restored, with just two remaining cottages under repairs. Smith happily reports that the ranch and restaurants have been very busy this summer, both with visitors and the many neighbors. And he’ll keep working on that cellar.
“It really is a work in progress, and it’s going to take a couple years to get it back to where we want it,” said Smith. “But the cellar is essentially full. I don’t really have room to put cases of wine away now, but I do have room for three or five bottles of highly collectible stuff. The fun part is looking for those real gems.”
900 San Ysidro Ln., Montecito; (805) 565-1720; sanysidroranch.com